2019 NFL Draft Prospects: Safeties - Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida
A former USA Today All-Florida selection, Gardner-Johnson was a monster on coverage units as a freshman and earned three starts on defense later on, highlighted by an Outback Bowl MVP performance thanks to two interceptions, taking one of them back to the house and the second one almost all the way as well. Over these last two years he has been an all-around impact performer for the Gators, recording a combined 129 tackles, with 15 of them for loss, six INTs, nine more pass broken up and two touchdowns.
The Gators had a down-year in 2017, but that’s when Gardner-Johnson emerged as the next great leader of the Florida defense. He lines up single-high, covering half-field, drops into the box and sneaks around the line of scrimmage, but his most natural fit might be in the slot.
Gardner-Johnson is a very instinctive safety, who shows up out of nowhere at times to make a play on the ball. He quickly hits the switch from his pedal to racing up against the run or quick completions to the back. He takes on blocks in space by receivers or tight ends with great extension and does a nice job disengaging from them, but he can also slip guys when there’s an angle to get to the ball-carrier. Gardner-Johnson is a determined blitzer, who came off the edge a whole lot and timed those up perfectly. Not only did he put pressure on the quarterback that way, but he also popped up chasing down running backs from behind.
I think Gardner-Johnson is an extremely versatile defensive back, who can do a variety of things in coverage. He mixes up his approach in man, being physical in press, driving on breaks in off or guiding receivers towards the safety help. He displays oily hips and has a wonderful speed-turn, where he shows the ability to re-locate the ball.
Gardner-Johnson has a feel for potential receivers coming across the formations and picks up backs or tight end running into the flats off play-action, when he is assigned the flat area. Moreover, he will try to find work if there is no threat to his area in zone coverage and falls off his original responsibility to make plays on the ball.
Gardner-Johnson shows great understanding of different splits and how to replace teammates in space, when they are being utilized as blitzer. He constantly communicates about receivers potentially crossing and makes sure him and his cornerback pick it up correctly. All that led to him allowing an average passer rating below 40 over the last two season.
My favorite play by CGJ came in the 2017 South Carolina game, when the Gators were in a single-high alignment and the Gamecocks tried to run off the corner in cover-three with a post route by the wideout. The quarterback put the ball up thinking tight end Hayden Hurst would be wide-open on a wheel route, but number 23 immediately sprinted that way, picked off the pass and almost took it the distance. That just shows the type of awareness, football IQ and range he possesses from the free safety position.
With all that being said, Gardner-Johnson unfortunately is a horrendous tackler – and there is no other way around it. He needs to learn to break down, as he whiffs on several tackles pretty badly by leaping into the action. Overall he missed 32 tackles over the last two years, which scares some people off, especially when thinking about him as your last line of defense. I also thought he opened his hips prematurely on some plays and the overall consistency is just not there for me to put him any higher than this, as high as I think his upside is.
Gardner-Johnson primarily played in the slot last season, where he did an excellent job, but I really love the versatility this kid brings to the table. He might not have elite top-end speed, but with his instincts, understanding of the game and ball-tracking ability he could be an outstanding free safety as well. I really feel like this could be a special football player, if only he cleans up his tackling. I thought his angles and finish to his tackles improved a lot heading into last season, but this is still an area for him to work on.